President Joe Biden’s new crusade to recruit thousands of young people for clean energy and conservation jobs doesn’t yet include his top climate change-fighting agency.
The White House announced Wednesday the creation of the American Climate Corps, which will place 20,000 young people in careers centering on addressing global warming in the program’s first year. Six agencies will sign a memorandum of understanding to implement the new initiative.
EPA, despite being the tip of the Biden administration’s regulatory spear against greenhouse gas emissions, is not one of them.
For now, the premier environmental agency does not have the existing resources to draw upon like its brethren in the federal government. The Agriculture, Interior, Energy and Labor departments and NOAA already have service programs up and running within their organizations. AmeriCorps, a service program itself, will be tasked with serving as the climate corps’ coordinating hub.
Unlike those agencies, EPA doesn’t have that infrastructure in place. The Biden administration wanted to act quickly to get the American Climate Corps up and running without relying on new funding or creating new programs.
Congress would likely be needed for both of those things. With House Republicans engaged in an intraparty battle over how deep to slash federal funding, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
On Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who has pushed legislation to create a climate corps, said the White House plan “represents just a down payment on the program,” which could grow if Democrats win back the House in the 2024 elections.
“We want to expand this, we want to include not only tens of thousands of more jobs, but we also want to make sure that we look forward to partnerships with agencies like the EPA, where we also can more deeply integrate beyond what has just been … announced today,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
For over a decade, lawmakers have introduced legislation to create federal training and hiring programs for jobs fighting climate change. In addition, Biden called for a strategy to create a Civilian Climate Corps in a 2021 executive order. Such an initiative was in his “Build Back Better” agenda but didn’t survive in its final version, the Inflation Reduction Act.
“Congress needs to do more. I think you need to some extent codify and mandate that activity,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, told E&E News about the climate corps program. Because it will be created through executive action, it won’t have the force of law behind it, meaning a future Republican administration could seek to dismantle it or undermine it.
Asked if EPA should be brought in as a participating agency, Grijalva said, “Absolutely.”
An EPA spokesperson deferred to the White House where press officials didn’t respond to questions for this story.
EPA ‘not that kind of agency’
Still, Stan Meiburg, who served 39 years at EPA, including as acting deputy assistant administrator during the Obama administration, said he was “slightly, but not existentially” surprised that his former agency was not part of the American Climate Corps. He said it doesn’t have “on-the-ground field operations” in place like other agencies.
“EPA just doesn’t. It is not that kind of agency,” Meiburg told E&E News. “The places where these climate corps people may be deployed is where these agencies have real assets on the ground — properties, wildlife refuges, parks, national forests, conservation areas.”
Meiburg, now the executive director of the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest University, added EPA is structured around delegating its authorities to state governments and is not designed like a New Deal-era agency.
“EPA doesn’t have any equivalent to AmeriCorps within its own agency,” he said. “EPA was built as a regulatory agency, not as a resource management agency.”
Collin O’Mara, the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation and a longtime evangelist for a Civilian Climate Corps-like program at the federal level, said the administration’s list of agencies to participate at this time made sense. Each has existing service programs already built into their infrastructure. Now they’ll be working in conjunction with each other, under the same banner.
“The way that the White House set it up is they are pulling the best of existing programs and trying to get to scale,” O’Mara said. “The concept is leveraging a lot of existing work that’s set up, so it’s just a matter of coordinating and branding. They aren’t starting from square one.”
Bigger grant resources
EPA has pumped out climate regulations, one after another, during the Biden administration. The agency has proposed rules to curb power plants’ carbon emissions, boost sales of electric cars and target potent greenhouse gases such as methane.
Beyond its regulatory and policymaking apparatus, EPA’s grant-making power has also increased exponentially in recent years.
The agency is set to receive over $100 billion from the climate and infrastructure laws combined, funding tasks like cleaning up Superfund sites, providing electric school buses and aiding marginalized communities long burdened by pollution. On Wednesday, EPA announced yet more grant money — $4.6 billion, authorized under the Inflation Reduction Act, going to state, local and tribal governments to combat climate pollution.
In turn, the agency is on a hiring spree to handle the increased workload and replenish its ranks as its aging workforce retires. EPA has said it wants to hire more than 1,800 new employees over the next year to implement IRA, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and its overall mission.
The Biden administration sees the American Climate Corps as another chance to fill staff positions at agencies involved in energy and environmental policy.
“This is going to build more streamlined pathways into long-term civil service,” Ali Zaidi, the White House climate adviser, told reporters when announcing the program, adding it will “help replace some of the folks that are going to be retiring in our critical agencies that are tackling the climate crisis.”
Meiburg stressed he believes EPA will be supportive of the climate corps program. In addition, the agency wants to work with community groups focusing on environmental justice.
“But that is a different question of whether EPA has the authority to hire people to go into those communities,” Meiburg said
“The agency is still assimilating to that,” Meiburg added, referring to EPA’s greater resources for grants. Meanwhile, the American Climate Corps “is more of an opportunity for EPA to work collaboratively with other agencies than create new programs on its own.”
Reporter Robin Bravender contributed.